PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The men cluster in a tight pack, identities obscured by fire-resistant Nomex clothes, each one anonymous except for the color of his helmet: red for corrections officers, blue and yellow for inmates.
When the air was hot and the woods were parched last summer, the peak of the wildfire season in the West, these trained wilderness firefighters fought 13 wildfires in Arizona, including the one in June that half-destroyed the nearby village of Yarnell and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team. On a crisp morning this fall, they were using chain saws and pulaskis — a firefighting tool that combines an ax and an adz — to chop overgrown bushes in a private development here, offering a measure of fire prevention for houses built in the wild.
Their home base is the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, but when asked where they are from, the reply is simply “Buckeye,” the name of the town where the prison is located. If there are other questions, they call it a “gated community” and leave it at that.
“That we’re inmates is the last thing on anybody’s mind,” said John Chleboun, 33, who has been serving time for burglary at the Lewis complex and is entering his second year with the crew.
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As federal agencies have cut costs during the budget standoffs in Washington, further decreasing the size of a firefighting workforce already reduced by 40 percent since the 1980s, the burden of fighting wildfires has been shifted to states and local jurisdictions, even as they struggle through a sluggish economy. Prison crews, cheap and dependable, have emerged as a solution as wildfires burn bigger, hotter and longer each year and take up a growing portion of the U.S. Forest Service budget. (In 2012 alone, federal agencies spent $1.9 billion on wildfire suppression, just shy of the record, set in 2006.)
“They’re very cost-effective,” said Julie Hutchinson, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which has the nation’s oldest and largest inmate firefighting program: roughly 4,000 prisoners and 200 crews. “And they’re out in the community, paying back for their mistakes.”
States log significant savings, paying inmates a fraction of the reimbursement fees paid to federal agencies for using their teams to fight fires or the price of hiring private companies to do the work the prisoners do in the off-peak season, like picking up trash along highways in Nevada, maintaining hiking trails in Colorado, and thinning forests and removing dried vegetation all across the region.
California pays inmates $1 per hour for work in emergencies like fires and floods, saving the state an estimated $80 million per year, according to forestry and fire-protection statistics. In Nevada, where inmates work for the same pay, they bring in around $3.5 million in annual revenue from the nonfirefighting projects for which they are hired, said Jody Weintz, who manages the program for the Nevada Division of Forestry. (Non-inmate firefighters earn around $10 an hour, as well as hazard pay and overtime.)
In Arizona, the pay for inmates is among the lowest in the country: 50 cents an hour.
In Colorado, which had the nation’s third-highest rate of recidivism in 2010, 52.5 percent, the program’s supervisor estimated that fewer than 25 percent of the inmates released after working on wilderness firefighting teams returned.
Some firefighting experts, however, do not believe that the social calculus makes much sense.
Wilderness firefighting “is a line of work where there are more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available,” said Stephen Pyne, a professor at the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and a former wilderness firefighter who has written numerous books about the history and mechanics of wildfires. “Why are we turning that over to prison crews?”
While inmates’ pay is low, there are other rewards. Arizona inmates work outdoors much of the year, and if they are out fighting fires, their status as inmates is not easy to discern. In California, inmates wear orange fire-retardant jumpsuits and sleep in separate camps when they are out on fire lines. But firefighting inmates in Arizona wear the same clothes as other wilderness firefighters.
They eat and sleep in the same cafeterias and campsites, an arrangement that defies the rigid barriers enforced inside prison walls. They also undergo the same training required of other wilderness firefighters and pass a physical assessment: traveling three miles on foot in 45 minutes, carrying 45 pounds on their backs.
“They’ve got to have the heart, the strength and the willingness to do the job,” said Jake Guadiana, an Arizona State Forestry coordinator and the boss of the Lewis crew. “This is not the place for you if you’re looking for a free meal.”
Sometimes the inmates try to take advantage of the light supervision and escape. Weintz, in Nevada, said that happened “once or twice a year,” but as far as he could tell, escapees were always taken back to prison, though not to the firefighting program. A clean disciplinary record is one condition of participation. Another is being in prison for a nonviolent offense.
More commonly, program managers say, the inmates leave prison at the end of their sentences and join firefighting crews. One of them, Grant Lovato, 46, who worked two seasons with the Lewis crew while serving time in prison for credit-card fraud and identity theft, is now a firefighter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Gulfport, Miss. In a telephone interview, he said, “The idea that I could be in prison and still get out into the woods and get to enjoy the nature was a transformative experience to me.”